The Decisions to Hire or Fire….

The Decisions to Hire or Fire….

by Sara Bennett | September 29, 2021

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…are not just the opposite ends of the staffing spectrum, but together represent the two most important staffing decisions managers make when building their teams.

I blog all the time on decisions to hire.  This blog is about decisions to fire and makes the point that just like decisions to hire, when you use a well thought out “management” process, firing decisions can become much less intimidating.  For sure firing decisions can be onerous, but when managers make these decisions part of an overarching “staffing” process (with a systematic start and ending point) they, like hiring decisions, can become much more straight forward – particularly important for small to medium sized businesses that aren’t rich in HR support.

This is not to say that firing decisions are easy, particularly if the employee isn’t violating any company policies or their work isn’t so dramatically underpart that the decision to fire becomes a “no brainer”.  

New managers, in particular, can struggle with borderline firing decisions because they recognize the serious impact firing decisions  can have on their employee, their team, their customers, their own careers.  Many obsess over these decisions to the point where they avoid them altogether – waiting it out in the hope that the employee will somehow, some way, “get it” and become the productive contributor everyone envisioned them to be when they were hired.

But waiting is not a process nor is it a strategy that will build your team.  In Tom Collin’s Good to Great, he made it clear that one of the primary missions of the leader was to set the path for your “bus” and put people on your bus who can help you get there.  This means that the leaders job is to make good decisions about who to invite onto your bus, and yes, on occasion, who you ask to get off.

Here’s some steps you can take to make decisions about when it’s time to ask someone to leave the team’s bus…..

First, let’s start with an overarching principle that must might shift how you think about a decision to fire.  It’s a simple game changing mindset that operates under the premise that leaders don’t fire people, people fire themselves.

Whoa…how does that happen?

Think about it this way – when a manager creates processes for managing performance – sets standards, provides training and coaching to meet those standards, and is commited enough to the success of the employee to provide feedback when they are veering off track – it’s the employee, not their manager, who decides if they are going to meet the expectations that have been set for them.  If there is to be a firing for failure to meet expectations in a well-oiled “performance management system” it’s the employee who gets to decide.

Here are 7 steps in managing performance that lets the employee decide their future on your bus….

  1. Set clear expectations for what you expect….

….starting as early as in the hiring process.  During your initial interview you can let a prospective employee know what “good work” looks like to you, the tools or methods you use to evaluate the employee’s work,  and provide concrete examples of what you consider to be good, great or poor performance.  This early communication goes a long way to establish a tone for all your employee/employer relationships.

And expectations need to be continually clarified as situations come up that require concrete statements of “what’s expected”, so that you can…

  1. …identify gaps

– as quickly as possible. Once you see an employee struggling your job is to communicate that they are falling short.  The earlier you identify the gaps the easier it is to get them corrected.  Wait too long and the problems in behavior have become habits and invite the distracting question – “why didn’t you tell me earlier”.

Here are some common gaps strong leaders are continuously paying attention to.  The employee….

  • ….isn’t keeping up on productivity requirements. They aren’t keeping up; they are making errors that are impacting the entire team or its customers.
  • …is getting complaints from customers, vendors or coworkers. Most teams can’t afford to lose customers or team members because of the below par performance or apathy of one employee
  • …is having trouble with their time management – missing meetings or deadlines.  They don’t seem to have the time management skills it takes to be successful on your team.
  • …is frequently violating team rules and standards. For whatever reason, they  tend not to follow processes that are important to the team’s collaborations and productivity
  • …is unwilling to make changes in their approach to certain pieces of the job that are important to the team’s growth. They consistently drag down the team’s momentum to improve.
  • …is frequently in the middle of team drama or gossip. They seem to be a part of the pot stirring that takes the team down.

People often ask when do you start documenting a performance issue.  

We recommend that you send a quick e mail that summarizes every conversation you’ve had on a performance related issue…even if it’s not yet that serious.

Hi John…Want to thank you for our conversation this afternoon to clarify the expectations I have for your work with the ABC project.  I apologize for my role in creating some confusion about expectations, but we were able to clear that up.  Because this is a new situation for both you and I, going forward, if you have a customer situation that you aren’t quite sure how to handle, you will get to me quickly so that we can work together on the final fix.”

  1. Explore why there are gaps and clearly communicate the consequences of the gap.

This is where good managers can become great or fall into the trap of mediocrity.  There are many reasons for gaps that can only be uncovered by having rich authentic conversations with your employee.

The reasons for gaps typically fall into the following buckets…

  • The employee sincerely didn’t know what you expected, which is the easiest kind of gap to fix. Clarify the expectation and indicate your expectation that there will be improvement.
  • The employee doesn’t know how to meet the expectation, which suggests it is time to consider either a program for training or retraining. If you think the gap can be closed with more training or retraining that you can provide, you can offer it up as a remedy.   If you truly believe that the issue is that the employee doesn’t have the ability to be trained or retrained into meeting your expectations or you are unable to offer that resource, its’ probably time to let them go now.
  • The employee isn’t motivated to meet the expectation, because they don’t yet understand the consequences of falling short. Lay it out.  If the issue is job threatening, tell them so.  If the issue is likely to cause them to lose interest in their job because they are not pursuing it at the level needed, let them know.  If their gap will get in their way of a future promotion, tell them so.  Whatever the consequences – make sure they are aware and let them decide what to do about that.
  • The employee is being distracted by personal issues. Not your job to fix, but you can provide feedback of how these issues are impacting the employees performance plus be a sounding board for things going on outside of work to help you decide if the “gaps” are likely to be temporary or long standing.
  • They are distracted by things going on “at work”. Pay attention here as the problem may be bigger than this one person’s performance gaps.

One of the most important elements in the  “why the gap” phase of the performance management process is that it gives the manager the opportunity to understand if they have played a role in the employee’s performance gaps which will give them a chance to remedy that issue.  While holding the employee fully responsible for closing the gap, the manager can also agree to provide “help” as needed or requested.

A great way to end a gap conversation is “what can I do to support your efforts to close this gap?”  .

  1. Create a plan to close the gap.

Once you know why there is a gap in the employee’s performance, you can work with them collaboratively to establish a plan to get it fixed.  Set targets and timelines that, depending on the nature of the gap, creates a sense of urgency.  Document the plan in as much detail as needed to ensure there is full understanding of the plan. 

  1. Follow Up….

…is probably the most painful and poorly executed step in the performance improvement process.  The leader needs to make sure you are following up on the plan and the employee knows you are following up.

The follow up is a time for the manager to provide encouragement and feedback, reinforce the seriousness of the process if the gap is job threatening, and listen carefully for any change in the employee’s attitude about the process.   Ongoing conversations are needed to strengthen or adjust the plan, but also to learn more about how its going from the employee’s perspective.

  1. Bring the plan to its logical conclusion….

…which can be rather straightforward. Either the employee fixes the issue, brings their performance up to acceptable levels, you keep being willing to adjust the plan, or at some point you must be prepared to execute on the consequences you laid out in Step 3.

This sixth step is your opportunity to fully visualize the impact of the decision to remove an employee from the team’s bus, secondarily to make a decision on the timing of when that decision will be executed.  As we have discussed the decision to terminate is not yours, but the timing of when that decision will be executed is.

  1. When it comes time to execute the termination decision, it needs to be done both professionally and legally.

Empathy goes a long way even if it is used to help an employee come face to face with the outcome of their own decisions.

“I’m sorry but we’ve now been involved in a process to correct an issue that has serious job threatening consequences we’ve been talking about for the last several weeks.  Unfortunately, you have not been able to meet the expectations we’ve discussed which means we have to let you go.”  

Be prepared to listen to the employee vent.  They may be sad.  They are likely to be angry.  “I understand your feelings, but this is the outcome we just can’t keep avoiding” always helps.

To keep the exit conversation constructive, come prepared with key information to move the conversation constructively into next steps.  A terminated employee will typically want to know…

  • When will they get their last pay check?
  • How will their benefits be impacted?
  • How will their personal property be retrieved? How will they return any company property?
  • What will you say in response to their claim for unemployment compensation?
  • What will you say in response to a request for reference info?
  • When will the team be fold of their leaving?

Summary

While terminating an employee is never going to be at the top of someone’s favorite leadership tasks, it’s often a necessary step in building and growing a team where everyone on the team has a chance of experiencing the successes of that team.   The key to an effective system of performance management  is to integrate what you do in your hiring process with what you do in your firing process  – clear expectations, quick recognition of gaps, corrective action, and follow up.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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